With my itinerant lifestyle, I’ve done very few races in New Zealand my erstwhile home. In 2014 I had planned to ride the Kiwi Brevet, but Tropical Cyclone Ian flattened Ha’apai in Tonga and I had to participate in the rebuild. So I was very pleased when the stars aligned and I found myself able to ride the 1,149 km (with 17,372 m of climbing!) around the top half of the South Island. The 5 days, 10 hours and 35 minutes were slower then I had hoped—but they did require us to take 6 hours off every day.
My wife Lis drove me the 150+ km from where we live west of Nelson to Blenheim the night before the race. I stayed with Nathan Mawkes who I had rode with two years ago on the Tour Divide. Peter Maindonald was also there and we had a good catch up at the ‘meet and greet’ Friday evening. Nice to be together with a bunch of like minded crazies …
Saturday morning we gathered at the ‘Top Town Cinemas’ for a pre-race briefing. There was no doubt that there was a bikepacking race on given the 100+ bikes lined up outside.
Day 1 – Rain
We had been enjoying bucolic weather with a drought. Of course that ended the day of the race and the first six hours or so were spent very wet. We started from Seymour Square as the clock chimed 10:00 and everyone was off at a very serious pace. I thought I was in a group ride rather than starting 1100+ km of endurance racing. We zoomed along in a few groups, which gradually broke up as more of us realized that there was little to be gained by blowing ourselves up the morning of the first day. We headed along the Wairau river’s north bank road and eventually came out on the State Highway near St. Arnaud. The day was clearing as we headed up the Rainbow Valley.
I rode with Peter, Nathan and a few others but ended up on my own when they peeled off to have a break. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of these long distance races—the different people you meet and form temporary partnerships with. I was to have several over the coming days.
I was very grateful to spend some time with John de Garnham. We ascended this long 17% grade together … tough climb! He had a Canadian wife and had lived in Toronto not far from where I grew up. He knew the course really well and gave me excellent advice on what was ahead of me that night. John suffers from Guillian-Barre syndrome and is a testimony that one can choose to work within one’s disability rather than let it totally master you.
About 20:00 I turned onto the St. James Cycleway. This is described by the Department of Conservation as: “The St James Cycle Trail offers challenging mixed grade riding through stunning scenery of mountain peaks, crystal clear rivers, high-country lakes, alpine meadows, subalpine beech forest, and expansive grassy river flats. The 64 km trail takes 1-2 days to complete depending on your level of fitness. You need to be reasonably fit and experienced to undertake the full trail.” I did it in about 6-7 hours.
It started off well and as the dark descended I turned on my lights. Unfortunately, my head lamp did not work. Could not figure out why as I had tested it before I left and it was recharged. This left me with my dynamo light only. I use the dynamo for lighting up directly in front of the bike, and the head lamp for ‘situational context’—in other words, to gauge what is coming up. As a result, I crashed quite a few times. Not spectacularly, but still annoying and potentially a game breaker.
I caught up with and passed Mitch who was from Arlington Virginia near where I lived and pressed on. My plan was to ride to midnight and get through most of the ride, but this was not possible with my lighting situation. There was a massive ‘hike-a-bike’ after crossing a bridge and as I ascended I saw three lights behind me—Mitch and it turned out Peter and Nathan. We were quite high up and I decided to walk my bike rather than ride as any errors would have seen me plunging down the mountain side. I really missed my head lamp.
At midnight I arrived at Pool Hut. There were two bikes and Bethany from Canberra was erecting her tent. She hadn’t checked inside so I did and, seeing two empty top bunks, made myself comfortable for the night. I had done 207 km with 3,000 m of climbing. Not a bad first day.
Day 2 – Heat
Bethany and I departed together about 06:00 heading towards Hamner Springs for breakfast. The riding was excellent and we were treated to blue skies—a nice change from the wet weather we had had the day before.
I had corresponded with Bethany a few years ago when she was considering riding the Tour Divide. I had planned on catching up with her and husband Seb for dinner in Canberra, but my business trip never eventuated. I was pleased to have the opportunity to ride with her and enjoy her company. She had worked in the renewable power sector and now was training to work with rural fire fighting! Given her strengths as a rider I’m sure she would surprise a lot of the fellows with her endurance and stamina. We were well matched and in the end she beat me to the finish line by about two hours!
The run down to Hamner Springs was a great 500+ m descent on a good road so I made the most of it, dropping her and a few other riders who were more circumspect. Lis and I had been to Hamner a few months earlier so I had my visit all planned—breakfast, supplies, and a new head torch.
I had not eaten properly for 24 h and so did the usual: ordered two breakfasts—scrambled eggs on toast and blueberry pancakes. I also had an iced coffee for Bethany when she arrived. There were a few other riders around, and others arrived as we were finishing up. I was still hungry so ordered another scrambled eggs on toast; Bethany said she didn’t think she could fit that much food in her stomach. Welcome to endurance racing!
Resupplied and with a new head torch I headed out of town. The day was really heating up and by the time I got to Hurunui pub it was in the low 30’s. I got some cold drinks and sat outside—the smell of the greasy kitchen in the pub was off putting to say the least. I’m not sure what was going on as I felt worse than I did in the low 40’s during the 2014 Transcontinental Race. Anyway, had to soldier on and by the time I was in Macdonald’s station I was having a serious meltdown. Even though I was well hydrated, I just felt seriously unwell. There was a stream with a bridge so I stopped and went below the bridge out of the sun and cooled my head by dipping my cap in the stream. After some time I felt better so headed out, but it was a struggle. The scenery was lovely—just wish it wasn’t so hot!
About 16:00 I saw the first riders since leaving Hamner—a group of 4 who zoomed past me with nary a greeting. Would have been nice to at least have a chat for a few minutes to take my mind off of feeling sorry for myself! The key is to keep going but to balance that with the need to recover. So I decided to shorten my day and after only 160 km (and 1571 m of climbing) I called it quits at a picnic site next to the road. I saw a few riders pass by, and Mike stopped to also camp. After eating a tin of baked beans (great for protein and fluid!) I crashed into my tent and a very deep sleep.
Day 3 – Wind
I was up and on the road by about 04:30. I made the right call by stopping early as I felt quite rejuvenated. About 06:30 I came across Nathan and Peter who had camped by a river. They had wisely decided not to do the Wharfdale track at night. The photo is myself with Nathan on the track.
There were sections of the track which were fine for riding, but others were very narrow and difficult to traverse. I was surprised to see that someone had slept on the side of the trail. It was Mitch! He had tried going through at 03:00 and after nearly falling off the side of the hill decided that it was best to stop right where he was. Good call—but he shouldn’t have started to begin with! Even Peter Maindonald who had multiple Brevets under his belt—and the Tour Divide—got into grief at that same location in day time. Crazy to try it in the dark.
It took quite a while to make my way through and I was really happy to emerge onto a road after too many hours of hike a bike. Peter and Nathan were well ahead of me by now, but this was a normal pattern that we had for the Tour Divide—I would eventually catch up to them late in the day. The downhill run was great fun, although flocks of sheep did interrupt my flow once in a while! It is New Zealand after all. Better these than the wild animals one can encounter on the Tour Divide.
I stopped at the pie shop in Sheffield and had a delightfully cold apple juice and a muffin—keeping fuelled is always a challenge. Then it was on towards Springfield where I planned to have lunch. There was a very strong headwind from the west so the going was slow, and to add insult to injury they took us off on a gravel road that ran almost parallel to the main road. That is one of the underlying philosophies of rides like this: if there is an alternate to a nice smooth main road we will take you on it!
As I rode into Sheffield I saw the four riders who passed me the day before during my meltdown heading west in a nice tight pace line. This is ideal for a windy day like today as it is so much easier and more efficient. Also totally against the rules as these are supposed to be individual races where it is us against the elements. If you find someone to ride with you ride next to them, not behind them, otherwise you have an unfair advantage over other riders. Peter and Nathan were equally (actually, more) strident about this.
As expected, Nathan was heading out of town after lunch and I bumped into Peter at the cafe and had a quick catch up before he went on. The proprietor was very helpful and made me scrambled eggs—in fact more than I could eat! In part because my body tends to shut down a bit during these races and doesn’t want nutrition.
The previous day my dynamo USB charger had failed, as had my backup battery power supply. I was grateful to find a wall charger in the petrol station (which cost 10 x what it should cost) so I would at least be able to henceforth get some power for my GPS and phone. After refuelling I headed west towards Arthur Pass—climbing and into a major headwind.
This was the second worst headwind I had encountered in my cycling career (the worst was near Wendover in western Utah crossing the Great Salt Lake). It was a pure grind, which was compounded by the 500 m climb out of Springfield. As I was working hard two cyclists pulled up and one suggested I join in to “work together”. “No thanks” I replied, “that’s against the rules as this is an individual race”. “Really?” was the response … The photo below shows the climb from Springfield.
I battled on and made slow progress. One advantage was that there were few places to take shelter so you may as well keep riding. It got so bad at one point that I decided to push my bike—even though it was flat. A gust of wind actually blew me off the road while walking! Just as I was coming out from the hilly section the skies opened and it started raining hard. This was welcome as they had had some serious fires in the area—I could smell the smoke and see the effects by the side of the road.
My goal was to at least make Arthur’s Pass and the weather got worse as I went into the mountains. Still, I was rewarded with some spectacular vistas.
About 10 km from Arthur’s Pass there was a motel and cafe next to the road so I went in. Sure enough, Nathan and Peter were just finishing dinner and getting ready to press on. I told them I was done but they counselled that after a good meal I’d be rejuvenated—and they were right. After a delightful meal of fettuccini I was raring to go so went back out into the rain and headwind for Arthur’s Pass. On the way I saw two hikers with large packs battling their way. At least with a bike I can get *somewhere* for shelter easily.
At Arthur’s Pass I again met Nathan and Peter—as they were about to head out over the pass. I decided to try and stay and got the last room in the Youth Hostel. There was roaring fire going which I used to dry my clothes out—and the hot shower was bliss. The skies opened and torrential rain was falling on us so I was grateful to be warm and dry. Bethany apparently arrived after I did and was told by the Youth Hostel proprietor to ‘toughen up’ and get on back out there. If I had only known she could have dossed with me. I wouldn’t send a dog out on a night like that, let alone a tired cyclist. So my day ended with 145 km of riding and 2125 m of climbing, but the wind made it feel much more than that.
Day 4 – Real Bikepacking!
Vous êtes des assassins! is perhaps the most famous, often quoted phrase in Tour de France history. It was shouted by Octave Lapize to onlookers as he struggled over the Col d’Aubisque in the 1910 Tour. That phrase was in the forefront of my thoughts for much of the day as the Brevet took us through a seriously dangerous and difficult ‘hike-a-bike’ section.
I was up by 04:00 and the rain was gone! Unfortunately, by the time I was out the door at 04:30 it was back with a vengeance. The descent of Arthur’s Pass is steep and it would have been great to do it on a dry day. As it was I could barely see out of my glasses so I took it very slowly. At least the only other traffic at that hour of the day were trucks slowly grinding their way up the hill.
The rain lightened up a bit as the morning progressed and soon I found myself on the flat cycling around lake Brunner. Of course with a headwind! While having a calorie break a cyclist caught up with me and after a brief chat he rolled on. The area had lots of lovely native bush which was nice to ride through.
One of the issues we have in New Zealand are introduced pests—rats and stoats—and their effects on the native bird population. There were no predators in New Zealand so birds like the kiwi don’t fly. The Government operates a massive poisoning program to try and combat the predators and this year’s one was even larger than usual due to the conditions. All along the ride I saw signs warning that 1080 was being dropped in the area. I decided that there was no way I would take water from anywhere near here which made me reflect on whether I should be opposing the 1080 program. I have friends that I respect on both sides of the argument and I think both are right. No easy solution—but definitely not where I want to get my drinking water! Fortunately, I got some in the town of Stillwater where I also took shelter from the continued rain for a brief rest in a bus shelter at the intersection with the main highway.
I saw two riders come down the hill so waved to them and they came over and sheltered with me for a while. Chris and Ben were both English and living in Christchurch. It was their first attempt at such an event and they were finding it Epic. In fact Ben was a roadie who had only bought a mountain bike a few months earlier. As we were chatting we saw the four riders who were in the pace line yesterday come down the hill. Nice to know that I was ahead of them in spite of their teamwork. They took shelter down the road at a closed pub. Chris, Ben and I rode together for a bit as the rain finally let up. Ben dropped a chain on a hill so I rode on and went off route to the town of Blackball where I hoped to grab an early lunch. The pub was closed but I was successful at getting some food at the General Store. Chris and Ben eventually joined me.
It was a classic small town store with a bit of everything. The proprietor was very kind and even gave us gratis some of yesterday’s muffins, heated with butter. With a full stomach and the rain gone the day was looking up so I headed out rejuvenated. Little did I know what was ahead …
The wind was finally a tail wind and I made great time through beautiful rolling countryside with lots of dairy farms. It was rural New Zealand at its finest. I got to the town of Ikamatua about 14:00 and stopped at the store for refreshments—a protein drink and some fruit biscuits. The proprietor commented that I was the lightest eater of any of the cyclists to date. More a reflection that I don’t eat most of what was available than my desire for food!
Peter had warned me that if I was not at Ikamatua by 17:00 not to proceed as the trail was difficult. I was grateful for that advice as it had inspired me to work to get there with time to spare. I was soon ascending up into the hills where there was an old mining town. It was incredible to think that 125+ years ago there were huge communities in these rugged hills. Just the logistics of supplying them with food—especially in winter—would have been daunting.
I was soon at the turn off to ‘Big River Track’. This is the old pack track that served the mine, eventually connecting with a very tough 4WD route which takes you down to Reefton. Very little of the track was rideable—at least by someone with my skill level—and if you made a mistake you would end up very far down a steep hillside, undoubtedly lost in the deep bush. I would have felt a lot better had I been with someone but there was so little room for error that it was not pleasant being there on my own. The photos below give you some idea of the beauty of the track—but also a glimpse of its remoteness. This was real serious bikepacking, and I was glad not to be doing it at night or in the rain. I was shocked to hear that the track was much improved over previous years!
After the worst was over I came upon Mitch! I enjoyed his company as we travelled down the 4WD track towards Reefton, fording rivers and actually being able to ride our bikes for a change. Of course there was still a lot of hike-a-bike, but at least it wasn’t the difficult and dangerous single track we had had earlier.
One thing that I was grateful for is the reliability of our bikes. They really went through difficult conditions and operated flawlessly. We are so fortunate to have access to such good equipment these days.
Eventually we exited from the track and found ourselves in Reefton. Sure enough we met up with Nathan who was enjoying steak, eggs and chips in a restaurant. Peter had just departed, pressing on. They had nothing suitable for me but Mitch was taken with the idea of such a meal so ordered his own. I eventually found a closed pizza restaurant but the lady kindly made me a pizza as her oven was still warm. I got a motel room for the night and really appreciated the hot shower and drying off my clothes. 187 km 2000 m
Day 5 – Homeward
At 5 a.m. I was on the road climbing out of Reefton. It was a gradual climb and I could probably have done it the previous night, but that would have meant bivying out in the cold and rain so I was glad I had indulged in a motel. The key to these races is recovery and whenever possible I stayed somewhere dry and warm. It was a really cold morning and I ended up putting on all of my layers, including my down vest, to keep as warm as possible. The downhill run to Springs Junction was fast but freezing and when I arrived the restaurant was excessively slow in delivering my two hot chocolates to try and warm up. My scrambled eggs was even slower, but I was very grateful for the warm food.
It was 20 km to Maruia where I found Mitch in the cafe having a mammoth breakfast. He had continued into the night after Reefton and camped out. I left him and pressed on. I was very pleased to see the sign welcoming me to Tasman—the district where I live. Home territory finally!
We were taken off before Murchison onto this long climb over a mountain but it was really lovely and I enjoyed the ride. There is such beauty and remoteness in this part of the country—in fact most of New Zealand is like this. We just seldom get out and experience it.
Murchison is a town I know well and I had an excellent lunch at one of the cafes. A rider came through and handed me my cycling vest! It had fallen out of my pocket on a descent but I hadn’t noticed it. Mitch rolled up just as I was departing—that was the last time I saw him.
After Muchison we headed up towards Lake Rotorua (‘Nelson Lakes’). It was a long hard climb on a gravel road, but nothing too difficult. I had not been up here for some years and I was amazed at how quiet the bush was: there used to be the sound of hornets everywhere but they have been successfully eradicated. Unfortunately, the sand flies are still as prevalent as ever—it is the sand fly capital of New Zealand. I got several bits when I stopped for the photo below.
The route out of Lake Rotorua was a very steep and difficult hike-a-bike. I calculated the grade at 17.5%. The photos below don’t do it justice, but it was mighty hard work. At least we were rewarded with fantastic views!
Like all such slogs, it is just a case of head down, tail up and getting on with it. Eventually I crested, just as the skies opened. This made the descent challenging as the rocky 4WD road was very slippery. I eventually made it out to the highway and then at 18:00 reached Glenhope at State Highway 6.
I was cold, wet and hungry. My only option for food was at Tapawera which was 46 km from Glenhope. Since pubs stop serving around 20:00 I had to put the hammer down if I was to make it—so I did. They took us off on a back road which was gravel and winded its way through farms and felled forests. I was pleased that the rain stopped around 19:00 and I then found myself on a paved road, with a tail wind, heading downhill into the golden afternoon sun. It was one of the most delightful rides I’ve ever had. I made it to Tapawera at 19:50 and as I rushed over to the restaurant I saw Peter by the side of the road. The restaurant was just starting to close so I ordered my food and sat down pleased with myself for having made it.
Peter came by and had a catch up before pressing on. As I was leaving another rider rolled in hoping to grab some food. I gave him my leftover chips (I’m not a big fan) which he was most appreciative of.
I was not on my regular training route so headed down the Motueka valley and turned right towards Dovedale. I caught up with Peter about 21:30 and we rode together to Wakefield where we bivied in the ladies toilet at the Golf Club. A good day of riding with 268 km 2987 m. It set us up to finish the following day.
Day 6 – Finishing!
We decided to vacate the ladies toilet before 6 just in case anyone needed it … I knew a dairy just down the road in Wakefield so we went there and had an early breakfast of a vegetarian pie and a hot chocolate. Just what I needed! It was then onto the ‘Great Taste Trail’ bike path to Nelson. Peter was full of juice and it was hard keeping up with him, but I managed to hang on. He dropped behind to follow when we approached Nelson as I know the trail so well.
One comment I had heard earlier in the race was how unfriendly Nelson riders were. I had some sympathy for this as they are not as friendly as in other places I have ridden. Sure enough one fellow blasted past us with nary a greeting/warning, as if to prove the point.
We were in Nelson by 07:45 and eventually ended up at the Riverside Cafe for breakfast. The sun was out and it was a lovely warm morning. As we enjoyed our scrambled eggs another rider came in for a quick coffee before heading out.
From here we rode up the Maitai valley towards the Maungatapu Track. This was another hike-a-bike, but not as bad as Lake Rotorua. I was glad to have Peter’s company for the 3+ hour uphill slog we did.
There was a fast run down to Pelorous Bridge where we got lunch. We came across six other riders—doing the shorter Brevette! Peter soon zoomed off and I followed—enjoying the tail wind which pushed me up to 36 km/h on the flat. The downside was the heavy traffic as we were now on the State Highway and the trucks were particularly disconcerting. At Havelock I turned onto Queen Charlotte Drive which is a delightful ride along the coast. The weather was fine, except for the strong wind which was not always behind me!
Picton was the last town and I was pretty tired when I got there at 15:00. After a drink I pressed on because Lis was collecting me at 20:30 from Blenheim. The last 66 km were tough. Most of it was over gravel roads and over a 33 km section we had about 1,350 m of climbing. That works out to be an average grade of 8% for the 16.5 km of climbing. This at the end of some 1,100 km or racing. Assassins.
So it was the same old story of head down, tail up and just grind my way up the hills. The area was lovely and I resolved to return one day—by car—and do some more exploring. At one point there was a sign that the area was settled in 1820 as a whaling station. One of the first European settlements in New Zealand. I passed two riders pushing their bikes up the hills. That was something I had managed to avoid at all costs during the ride. It was only on the unrideable tracks that I had resorted to pushing… I was really happy to be rewarded with the view below on the last hill—the end was in sight!
Of course it wasn’t easy as there was still the strong wind to contend with, but after 190 km and 4396 climbing I eventually found my way to the finish line in Blenheim. My overall time was 5 days, 10 hours and 35 minutes. Peter had beaten me by 30 minutes, but waited at the finish line to say goodbye. I hopped in the fountain to clean up—and had it been warmer I’d have fully immersed myself!
After saying goodbye to Peter and his wife Debbie we hopped in the car, got a Subway sandwich, and headed home. It was a great race with excellent riding companions. I’d recommend it as a ride that will not only challenge you, but also introduce you to the amazing back country beauty of New Zealand.